Another American vessel torpedoed; 24 lives lost

The Pittsburgh Press (September 9, 1941)


Roosevelt’s radio talk eagerly awaited after third 'incident’

By the United Press

Adolf Hitler appeared today to have launched “all-out” warfare against American aid to Great Britain and Russia.

The torpedoing and sinking of the American-owned steamship Sessa, with the loss of 24 men, including an American, in the United States naval patrol waters southwest of Iceland was disclosed in Washington shortly after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that Hitler might carry naval warfare into the American zone.

The Sessa, of Panamanian registry but owned by an American firm, was the victim of the third ship incident between the United States and Germany in five days. The steamer Steel Seafarer was sunk in the Red Sea and the USS Greer clashed with a U-boat in the North Atlantic.

In Berlin, a Nazi spokesman admitted that German planes might have sunk the Steel Seafarer in the Red Sea. The High Command said the air force sank or damaged six ships in the attack Sunday night in Suez waters. The spokesman found “nothing extraordinary” in the sinking of the U.S. freighter. The Red Sea is a German and Italian “shooting area,” the spokesman added (Latest reports from Washington said the Seafarer was sunk Friday night although other reports said it went down Sunday night).

Sinking of the Sessa greatly increased interest in the speech of President Roosevelt Thursday, when he may strike out against Nazi sea attacks.

The Germans had warned repeatedly that any ship carrying goods to Britain and entering the blockade zone decreed by Hitler (covering Iceland) would be attacked. In his speech, Mr. Churchill suggested bolstering the Atlantic patrol system, which he credited with a major role in helping to turn the tide of sea war. He said Hitler now feels he must act to halt the broad stream of American war materials to anti-Axis nations.


By Lyle C. Wilson, United Press staff writer

Washington, Sept. 9 –
The State Department today announced the sinking of the Panamanian ship Sessa southwest of Iceland, coincident with warnings from London that Germany would force naval warfare on the United States and a statement here that Britain had been promised further American naval aid.

The Sessa was torpedoed Aug. 17 with a loss of 24 persons, including one American, of her complement of 27. The three survivors were picked up Sept. 6 by an American naval vessel.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull said at his press conference that the Sessa, while flying the flag of Panama, was owned and operated by American interests.

In response to inquiries, he said he thought there was no question about the author of the attack on the Sessa, but that he preferred not to discuss that phase of the situation until more complete facts were available.

The Sessa announcement followed by about 12 hours announcement that the American freighter Steel Seafarer had been sunk at 11:30 p.m., Sept. 5, at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez in the Red Sea. Capt. J. D. Halliday and the crew of 35 from the Steel Seafarer escaped in lifeboats after their vessel was hit by a bomb from an unidentified airplane. First reports said the vessel had been hit Sept. 7, but the Maritime Commission today fixed the earlier date.

That sinking followed by about 48 hours an encounter southwest of Iceland between the U.S. destroyer Greer and a German submarine in which the Greer’s officers reported that she counterattacked after torpedoes had been fired at her. Berlin charged that the Greer fired first.

These developments strengthened belief here that the Navy would meet force with force in American waters in challenge to any German effort to cut the British lifeline. President Roosevelt may outline the Navy’s responsibilities in the worldwide broadcast that was postponed from last night to Thursday because of the death of his mother.

Shortly before loss of the Sessa was announced, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in London that Adolf Hitler might force naval warfare on the United States in an effort to cut off the broad stream of aid-to-Britain war supplies.

Senator Elbert D. Thomas (D-UT) told questions that the United States had pledged further naval aid to Great Britain following the Greer incident and that instructions had been sent to the American fleet.

Mr. Thomas explained:

Further American naval aid has already been promised as a result of the Greer incident. Our ships are out to find that submarine and if they run across another one they might mistake it.

The State Department announcement of the Sessa’s loss follows:

The State Department has been informed by the Navy Department that on Saturday morning, Sept. 6, the Navy picked up three surviving members of the crew of the SS Sessa, about 300 miles southwest of Iceland.

24 members of the crew are unreported and presumed lost.

The State Department was informed that the survivors stated the ship had been sunk by a torpedo on Aug. 17. There was an American citizen member of the crew. His name is lacking and he is not one of the survivors.

The names of the three survivors have not been furnished to the Department of State. The Sessa was a former Danish vessel which was acquired from the Danish government under authority of the recent law permitting taking over of idle foreign flag ships in American waters. The vessel was under Panama registry and was transporting supplies for the government of Iceland and owned by that government.

The cargo consisted of foodstuffs, cereals, lumber and other general cargo and did not include arms, ammunition or implements of war.

Cargo of the Steel Seafarer had not been revealed at midday, but the State Department said the Sessa was carrying foodstuffs, lumber and other general cargo, but no arms, ammunition or implements of war. The naval vessel which picked up the Sessa’s three survivors was not named. The Sessa was transporting for the government of Iceland supplies owned by that government.

Of the Steel Seafarer’s crew, 24 landed at Shadwan Island, 12 miles from the point of attack in the Gulf of Suez and 12 others were picked up from lifeboats by British ships. The Steel Seafarer sailed from New York July 18 for Suez, Egypt. The rescued crew and officers will proceed to Suez and thence to the United States as soon as possible.

May denounce sinking

Mr. Roosevelt is expected to denounce the sinkings as violations of our rights to freedom of the sea and an invasion of American waters which the Navy has undertaken to keep clear of raiders.

The Steel Seafarer was sunk in an area closed to American flag vessels on June 11, 1940, but reopened to them on April 11 of this year when Mr. Roosevelt concluded that the war between Great Britain and Italy in that part of the world had ceased to be actual war following the defeat of Italian forces in northeastern Africa. The order of April 11 opened the Red Sea to American flag vessels to the eastern end of the Suez Canal.

More than a score of American merchant ships soon went into the Red Sea trade bearing supplies for British forces in the Near East.

Three days before the Steel Seafarer went down, the Greer reported to the Navy Department that she had been attacked by an unidentified submarine and had counterattacked with depth charges but that results of the counterattack were unknown. Last Saturday, Berlin acknowledged that the submarine was German but insisted that the Greer had attacked first. Mr. Roosevelt told his press conference last Friday that the submarine inexcusably attacked first and more than once during daylight hours and at a time of good visibility. He said the Atlantic Fleet had been ordered to “eliminate” the attacker if possible.

Although the State Department did not attempt to identify the airplane which sank the Steel Seafarer, it was recalled that there had been Axis threats to sink any vessels which attempted to carry supplies to the British in the Near East.

Sinking of the Steel Seafarer gave new emphasis to Mr. Roosevelt’s emphatic Labor Day statement that war supplies to Great Britain and her allies must be “more greatly safeguarded.” It is believed that his Thursday broadcast may deal with some phase of that problem, especially in view of the loss of the first ship in the Red Sea lifeline.

Mr. Roosevelt appeared uncertain immediately after opening the Gulf of Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea to American vessels whether they would actually go into that trade. But 26 or more ships shortly were engaged in it and a Maritime Commission official told the United Press that American vessels had been carrying “a considerable amount of supplies” through the South Atlantic, up the east coast of Africa and to the Suez Canal at the head of the Red Sea.

On April 15, four days after opening the Red Sea by proclamation, Mr. Roosevelt told press conference questioners that defense of American merchant vessels operating outside actual combat zones was an obligation imposed by federal statute. He said it was a matter of law rather than of administration policy.

But at that time on the specific question of protecting American ships in the Red Sea, Mr. Roosevelt replied that he did not know of any of our ships in that area and had no information that any would go there in the relatively near future. He indicated, however, that American merchant ships would not be armed. Both the Isthmian Steamship Co. and the American Export Line subsequently entered the Red Sea trade largely, it is presumed, to supply British Near Eastern forces with war supplies.


By Richard Mowrer

Cairo, Sept, 9 –
The American freighter Steel Seafarer was attacked and sunk in the Red Sea by enemy aircraft, 200 miles south of Suez. The attack occurred at midnight Sept. 6-7, according to information available here and is believed to have been made by a torpedo-carrying plane. No loss of life is reported.

The attack was carried out despite the fact that the Steel Seafarer was unarmed and probably traveling with lights as a neutral vessel on the high seas. British authorities here state that 24 survivors of the American ship were picked up immediately after the attack and landed on Shadwan Island. 12 members of the crew, temporarily missing, were later picked up and landed at Hurghada on the Egyptian coast.

New York, Sept. 9 –
The SS Sessa was operated by the Marine Transport Lines of New York, and left this port for Reykjavík, Iceland, on Aug. 6.

Of 1,700 gross tons, the Sessa was built in 1936 at Helsingfors for J. Lauritzen, a Danish shipper.


The Pittsburgh Press (September 10, 1941)

Aerial attack under a full moon –
By Grattan P. McGroarty, United Press staff writer

Aboard a British warship in the Red Sea, Sept. 9 – (via Alexandria and London, delayed)
Officers and men of the American freighter Steel Seafarer said today that a big bombing plane appeared above them last Friday night, cut off its motors and, gliding down in the clear light of a full moon, loosed a bomb or aerial torpedo which seemed to lift the ship out of the water.

The missile struck amidships on the starboard side beneath the waterline at 11:38 p.m. The ship’s lights went out. All hands were piped into the lifeboats within five minutes. The Steel Seafarer sank in 20 minutes, two minutes after Capt. John Halliday of Baltimore. Chief Officer Ralph F. Pratt of New York City, Helmsman Robert Cartwright of Nantucket, Mass., and Wireless Operator James Abernathy of New York City, last to go, had lowered away.

They got off just in time to escape being caught in the swirling suction of the wrecked hulk.

12 men in one lifeboat were picked up by a Danish freighter. The other 24, in two boats, struggled for 12 hours through a heavy sea to a small rocky island about 10 miles away and were picked up by this British warship, to be landed today at a Red Sea port.

All aboard were safe and none suffered any injury beyond slight scratches.

The Steel Seafarer’s crew are not at liberty to talk freely regarding details of the attack. But one of them, who asked to remain unidentified, said to me:

There can be no suggestion that the plane which attacked us mistook us for a British ship or one of another nationality.

Our flag was in the light of our floodlights and the light of a full moon. It was clearly visible and identifiable. It is our own belief that the plane was sent to attack the Steel Seafarer to prevent her reaching port. It accomplished that. It was in our belief a deliberate attack against the American flag.

Chief Officer Pratt, brown-eyed, light-haired, bronzed, stocky, a seafaring type, told me:

I was asleep when the attack began but I didn’t stay that way long. I could not be sure whether one or two bombs struck but to the best of my knowledge it was like this:

The plane came over. Its motors cut off. We had no warning of its intention to attack. It glided in and down until it was only about 150 feet above our mastheads. Then it let loose its load.

’Terrific explosion’

There was a terrific explosion. It seemed to raise the Seafarer about three feet out of the water, With one shoe and one slipper on, and nothing else, I ran for the bridge.

All the lights had gone. We were in complete darkness inside the ship except for flashlights. It could have been either a bomb ot a torpedo which it us. In view of the great column of water that went about 75 feet above us, it may have been a heavy caliber bomb which scored a near-miss and shattered the starboard side, destroying one of our oil fuel tanks.

After reaching the island, we learned that the explosion had been heard 10 miles away. There was no fire but the ship started to heel over at oncer and to settle…

We were definitely not in a convoy, although we had been with two other ships. We spent all night in a heavy running sea attempting to make land. At 11 a.m., our boats arrived after a mighty tough voyage…

Except for those on duty at the time of the sinking, all hands were undressed and we lost everything.

I’ll never forget the British tars, but I also must say a word for our own lads. They never flinched. They stood up to it as if they had been doing it all of their lives.

Mr. Cartwright, who was at the wheel when the ship was hit, said:

I heard a whirring noise overhead and looked up just in time to see the roughly outlined form of a plane approaching from the starboard bow. She raced aft and there was a crash.

I don’t know what kind of plane it was but I’d like to get my hands on the __.

Mr. Cartwright was ordered off with the first group but he returned to aid in searching the ship for anyone who might have been trapped below.

Transmitter knocked out

Wireless Operator Abernathy said that he could not send an SOS because his wireless transmitter had been knocked out. He aided in setting off emergency flares.

Chief Engineer M. C. Dade told me:

I was asleep when the torpedo hit, but the explosion lifted me off my bed and IO landed on the floor. Everything in the room was shattered, I put on coveralls and went down to the engine room where with the third officer I shut off the engines.

My place was not in the motor lifeboat, but I saw they were unable to start the engine, which was giving trouble, so I fixed up the engine and boarded the boat as senior officer.

The motorboat had seven of us in it. We towed another boat with the rest of our 24. The other boat with 12 men drifted away and we thought it was lost.

We headed for the island, where we were royally received. The captain flashed a signal from the island to a freighter which was passing by. It communicated with the British warship which came the next day and picked us up.


Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 10 –
British air and naval authorities said today they were unable to state whether a German or Italian plane had sunk the American freighter Steel Seafarer at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez.

It was believed, however, that the plane took off either from the Italian Dodecanese Islands or from Libya. Both Italian and German long-range bombers are believed based at Rhodes in the Dodecanese Islands.

Italian and German long-range bombers are also based in Libya, but it was believed that, if the attack on the American ship was made from there, it was by an Italian plane.

12 Seafarer survivors who were not taken to Suez with the main party were reported picked up by a freighter and landed at Hurghada in the Anglo-Egyptian oil field. Officials here have not heard from Hurghada authorities regarding the survivors but it was said that ample supplies were available to Hurghada, including food.

By William H. Stoneman

London, Sept. 10 –
While the British newspapers devote considerable space to the Steel Seafarer and the Sessa incidents and to President Roosevelt’s speech tomorrow night, speculation regarding the beginning of a “shooting war” between the United States and Germany is received by London with open skepticism.

British correspondents in Washington treat the question with cautious objectivity and London newspapers refuse to comment upon it editorially. Individual citizens feel that the President may go somewhat further than he has gone before but they have had it drilled into their heads that neither he nor the American people are prepared to do the one thing which in their estimation is required by the present situation.

18th century attitude?

The Washington correspondent of The London Times speculates extensively on the possibility that the United States may now accept the challenge presented by the Greer, Steel Seafarer and Sessa incidents by adopting the same “posture of quasi-belligerency” which it assumed toward France at the end of the 18th century.

He recalls that the American Navy, small then but efficient, was allowed to capture armed French ships and to bring them in for prize court procedure. American merchant ships were permitted to arm themselves for defense and even to make prizes of armed French ships which attacked them. In all, more than 80 French vessels were sunk or captured. But at no time did Congress authorize offensive hostilities or the capture of private property such as would have ensued in an actual state of war. This ensued for two years.

The Times correspondent adds:

Such a brief historical recital would have much importance if the President in his speech tomorrow should call the facts to the attention of the public. Germany today is – and Japan tomorrow might be – engaged in a “fighting war” with the United States which is also an undeclared war, is the United States gto adopt the same posture of quasi-belligerency? At least it can be said with confidence that the President and his advisers have a wide knowledge of their country’s history and wouldn’t be likely to quail at the extraction from its pages of a precedent which lies ready to their hands.

Letters to The Times

While Britons await the President’s message without hoping for too much in the way of American action, private citizens continue to write to The Times on the subject of an American declaration of war.

A. H. B. Allen writes:

We consider, at least many of us do, that for any civilized nation to have remained neutral in this war has been a crime. And we feel very bitter that up to now in our fight against aggression and on behalf of world order, not a single nation has come to our assistance with its armed forces until it itself has been attacked. Our appeal to the United States is not because of attribution to her of any special standard of morality. What the United States has is the responsibility of power. She is the only civilized nation that is able to intervene with any effect.

Brig. Gen. C. F. Aspinall-Oglander, chief of staff during the Gallipoli evacuation in World War I, adds a letter in which he quotes a book by the America, Owen Wister, published in 1915, called The Pentecost of Calamity.

Perhaps nothing save a calamity will teach us what Europe is thankful to have learned again – that some things are worse than war and that you can pay too high a price for peace; but that you can’t pay too high for finding and keeping your own soul.

Printed at the top of The Times’ world-famous letter column, these letters have considerable importance and are significant of the way in which the British really feel on the subject of an American declaration of war. They mark another clear break with the days when the British either were not sure that they wanted an American declaration, or having decided that they did, or having decided that they did, were reluctant to express their opinions.


Berlin, Sept. 10 (UP) –
Competent German quarters said last night that first press reports of the sinking of the Panamanian freighter Sessa had just reached Berlin and declined any kind of comment for the time being.

Authorized German spokesmen found “nothing extraordinary” in the sinking of the American freighter Steel Seafarer in the Red Sea:

…if such was actually the case.

A commentator said:

Naturally there is shooting around the Suez waters and any ships venturing into that neighborhood are likely to get hit.

The High Command said six ships were sunk or damaged in a German air attack on shipping in Suez waters Sunday night.

Washington and London reports said the Steel Seafarer was sunk in the Red Sea by a plane Sunday.

A spokesman said reports indicated the Steel Seafarer was sailing on behalf of Britain and added:

The Italians long ago declared the Red Sea area a zone of operations. At the end of the Ethiopian campaign, Roosevelt announced that the Red Sea no longer was a scene of hostilities, but it looks as if he gave the all-clear somewhat prematurely.

He said he did not know whether the ship would have been sunk by a German or Italian plane:

…but both fly regularly over the Suez area to block it against shipping.


Rome, Sept. 10 (UP) –
The reported sinking of the American freighter Steel Seafarer in the Red Sea was described officially last night as:

…a perfectly natural occurrence in view of the fact that the Red Sea, like the Suez Canal, was declared a war zone by Italy.

The crisp official comment was announced in a communiqué which said that reports available here were that the ship was:

…in the service of England.

The communiqué said:

Reports that an American ship in the Red Sea in the service of England has been sunk caused the following reaction here – if true, it represents a perfectly natural occurrence, inasmuch as the Red Sea, like the Suez Canal, was declared a war zone by Italy.